Hey, so I learned how the “Mentor’s Guide to the TOEFL” works.  Here’s what you should know:

  • If a teacher emails ETS and supplies the names and email addresses of ten students, ETS will set up a course the students can complete via the edX platform.  The teacher will be added to the course as an admin.
  • The course is almost identical to the existing edX course that students can do on their own.
  • It does include a new practice test.  That appears to be one of the “Test Practice Online” sets that ETS has licensed to schools in China, but it will be new to everyone outside of China.
  • If the students pay a $50 fee (each) to edX, the teacher can track their progress through the course.  If they do not pay that fee, the teacher cannot track their progress.
  • The platform includes a message board for course participants to you.

That’s about it.  I tried to get some students to enroll, but they had already completed the edX content and weren’t interested in doing it again.

An update for those waiting for the IELTS Online (aka the home edition). The IELTS website has been updated and now saysIELTS Online will be available in 2022 in limited countries.”

It used to say “IELTS Online will be available from early 2022.

I think we can read this as a delay to the roll-out of the new test.

Also notable is that the website now says “you will receive your results 3-6 days after taking IELTS Online.

The original version said “you will receive your results 3-5 days after taking IELTS Online.”

Arizona State University stopped accepting the TOEFL Home Edition sometime last month. When I reached out to the school I was told that they will no longer accept the GRE Home Edition either (but I am not sure how they can tell the difference in the case of that test).

This is a big deal, as ASU still has one of the largest undergraduate enrollments in the United States.

Concerns about at-home testing have been bubbling to the surface over the past few months.

ASU doesn’t mention any particular concerns, of course.  But I was told by the school that “ASU’s policies about acceptable tests are all put in place after thoughtful consideration about what is best for both the student and the university, ensuring that the admission process for all students who apply is fair and practical.”

Out of a desire for self-preservation I don’t usually blog about this topic or about the details people send me. But, hey, if you are with a testing organization you know how to reach me. My consulting rates remain cheap-as-free.

People often ask me how to get the digital access code when they buy an ebook of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, or one of the TOEFL iBT Tests books from ETS.  ETS doesn’t make it easy to find the code, since it isn’t included within the text and they don’t email it directly.

To find the code, here’s what you should do:

  • Sign in to your account on ETS.org/toefl
  • Click on “My Test Preparation”
  • Check the “action” column for a code or link to a code
  • Enjoy!

And that’s where to find the download code for your TOEFL ebook.  This only works if you bought the ebook directly from ETS.

Do you want to read a 400 page book (plus an index) all about your friends at ETS?  Well, maybe you should!  This month I read Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.”  Writing in a fairly  accessible tone, Lehman describes the founding of ETS in the 1940s and the goals that the creators of the standardized testing movement had in mind when the radically reformed how American universities (especially the good ones) admitted students. These reforms were borne out of a desire to foster a “meritocracy” of talented people which they hoped would emerge from the universities and shape the post-war nation.  Needless to say, things didn’t work out as well as they hoped they would, but the ideas behind their plan still loom large in American society. Part of the book examines the movement for affirmative action at American universities, which Lemann seems to think came about as a result of their heavy reliance on SAT scores. 

This is a valuable chronicle of a unique part of American history which I don’t think has been sufficiently documented. As Lehmann notes later in the book, all of this stuff was put into place without political purview or open debate.  Instead, a small number of men made some important choices that have had a major impact on American society for almost eighty years.  And counting.

A few passages of the book are worth repeating here.  Just for fun.

Regarding ETS founder Henry Chauncey:

“He didn’t believe that he and his colleagues had been explicit social engineers; they were simply trying to help the country” (120).

Though the book was written 23 years ago, much of it sounds chillingly contemporary:

“The psychological side [of being a new-style meritocrat” was… a powerful experience – being constantly evaluated as you grew up and then being admitted into a special group. One’s impulse was to go through life repeating the fundamental cycle of gratification: selective admission, followed by membership in a tight, reassuring (though rivalrous) cadre of similarly chosen people. […] At the same time the idea that you might be a national leader was still alive. You wanted assured success and security, but not just that. The most popular professions were not dentistry or certified public accountancy.  You also wanted to matter, to be admired, to take a part in shaping American society.” (186)


“By the 1970s there were already signs that the meritocratic order was not going to be so popular in American society as its founders had anticipated. […] The people selected for the elite were starting to look less like selfless leaders. They were on their way to making a lot of money, they took advantage of the tradition of draft exemptions for the brainy to get out of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, they held themselves apart. And what had they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority other than to get high test scores and get good grades? The astonishing rise of Ronald Regan demonstrated that political careers were being built by people who were exploiting public resentment of this new elite.” (187)

Those of you interested in buying a copy should seek out the paperback edition, which includes a new afterward. That afterward takes the form of a fairly scathing indictment of using IQ tests like the SAT to select who gets put on the path to joining the “elite” of society.  I won’t type it up here as I suppose I’ve quoted too much already.  But seek it out.  It is quite an essay.  Heck, if you call me on the phone I’ll read it to you.

A good companion to this book is “None of the Above” by David Owen. It was written about 15 years earlier and covers some of the same territory, but with a more irreverent tone. I reviewed that on Goodreads some months ago. Perhaps I’ll paste that review into the blog in April.

I fear I’ve ruined the “You Should Read More” series!  It wasn’t supposed to be a book review column!  But I did read some magazines this week.  Here are a few article recommendations to hone your academic reading skills:

  • The February 2022 issue of “Apollo” has a wonderful article about the history of Kabuki in Japan. Articles about history are commonly used in the reading section of the TOEFL, and I think dance has come up a few times.
  • The January 24, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” has an interesting article about the book which the movie “Bambi” was based on.  Turns out that the book is quite unlike the film. The fun thing about most articles on the New Yorker website is that you can listen to them, read by an actual human being (not a computer voice).


There are new reading question types on the Duolingo English Test the starting today! 

These are called “Interactive Reading Questions.”

When you take the test, you’ll now get two short reading passages with six questions each.  One passage will be a narrative style reading (it will tell a story), and the other will be expository (like a short academic article).  You will have seven or eight minutes to complete all of the questions for a given passage.  Interestingly, you may not get to see the whole passage at first.  Instead, parts of it will be revealed at you move through the questions.

Question types are:

  • complete the sentence (pick best words to finish a sentence in the reading)
  • complete the passage (pick the best sentence to finish the reading)
  • highlight the answer (locate the answer to a given question and highlight it within the passage)
  • identify the main idea of the passage
  • select a title for the passage.

These questions are all showing up now in the free practice test provided by Duolingo, so you can check out examples if you like.  I’ll take the practice test a few more times and update this post if necessary.

The test will still be one hour in total. To make room for this new content, fewer instances of the existing question types will be included.  Note that no question types have been removed.  You’ll just get fewer of each.

Update: DET has a YouTube video that describes the questions.

ETS has a new president and CEO.  Amit Sevak, most recently of Mindset Global, will replace Walt MacDonald who is retiring after 38 years with the organization (eight as President/CEO).  Longtime blog readers will note that ETS named a new CEO in April of last year and a new CIO in November.  Notably, all of these hires have been from outside of the organization.  These moves bring to mind the success that ETS enjoyed in the early 2000s after scouring the corporate world for new hires. 

Students often write a single sentence that contains the conjunctions “although” and “but”. This is probably a bad idea. You should just pick one.

You can write:

“Although I studied hard, I couldn’t pass the test.”

And you can write:

“I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

Can you see how each of those sentences has just one of the conjunctions?

Don’t write a sentence with both of them. You shouldn’t write:

“Although I studied hard, but I couldn’t pass the test.”

I suppose this is the same as combining “because” and “so” in the same sentence, but that’s a topic for another post.

I see a lot of errors with “ago” and “earlier.” It can be tricky to explain the difference, but I will do my best.

Use “ago” to refer to a point relative to the present. For instance, I can say:

“I met my wife four years ago.”

That means I met my wife four years before the present time (now).

Or I can say:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago.”

That means Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years before the present time (now).

Don’t use “earlier” to talk about a point relative to the present.

Use “earlier” to talk about something that happened relative to a particular time in the past. For instance I can say:

“I met my wife in 1982. Four years earlier, I had been dating Suzy.”

That means I dated Suzy four years before 1982.

Do you get what I mean? Here’s another:

“Simon was born in Chicago twenty-five years ago. His parents had moved there four years earlier.”

That means Simon’s parents moved there four years before Simon was born.

Honestly, I am not sure if it is better to use the past perfect tense of the simple past tense for the “earlier” parts. The past perfect tense sounds a bit clunky in the second example, but that’s just my opinion.

Use the past tense to refer to extinct animals like dinosaurs.

Pterosaurs are extinct, so that means writing:

“Pterosaurs were cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

Don’t write:

“Pterosaurs are cold-blooded like modern reptiles.”

The sea cow is extinct, so you should also write:

“Kelp was the main food source of the sea cow.”

Don’t write:

“Kelp is the main food source of the sea cow.”

You might think this is a very obscure point, but I fix this sort of error every week when I review student essays. ETS loves to create integrated writing questions about dinosaurs and other ancient animals.

Students often ask if they can take notes or write templates on their scratch paper during the ten minute break in the middle of the TOEFL.  The answer is no.  You are not allowed to write anything during the break.

Here’s what the TOEFL Bulletin for 2021-22 says (on page 23):

The scratch paper is provided for appropriate note taking during the timed sections of the test. Scratch paper is not to be used before the test, during the untimed sections of the test, or during breaks.

On the next page, it says:

You cannot use the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay at the beginning of the test or during breaks.

And then on page 25 it says that your test will be stopped for:

Using the scratch paper provided or notes of any kind to prepare your essay during breaks.

Later on the same page it says that your test will be stopped for:

Attempting to remove scratch paper or a piece of scratch paper from the testing room or using scratch paper before the test, during the untimed sections, or during breaks.

Get the point?

I should also mention that you aren’t allowed to access your phone during the break.  Here’s what the bulletin says (on page 24):

You cannot access your phone or other devices during the test session or during breaks to check messages, make a call, check the time or for any other reason.